Book Reviews


Hymns as Homilies
Peter Newman Brooks
Gracewing, 1997, (294 pp., 15.99)

The cover of this book sets out the author's purpose: 'At a time when the art of great preaching seems to have been lost, and the very faith that is preached often uncertain, Peter Newman Brooks draws attention to the timeless truths and riches underlying our most memorable hymns'. As the title suggests, the author emphasises throughout his survey the didactic and evangelistic quality of the hymns he has selected. He starts with Luther's A Mighty Fortress because he says, 'The crisis in Christendom that was the reformation of the sixteenth century transformed popular worship, and Luther in particular gave such priority to music that he placed it "next to theology" and afforded it "highest praise" ...the so-called "protestant" faith was spread by hymn-singing, if only because, set to memorable tunes, such hymns were precisely the kind of sermons ordinary folk could grasp. , Luther, then, set a trend which was followed by subsequent hymn-writers such as Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Augustus Montague Toplady et al. Newman Brooks assigns a chapter apiece to twelve hymn-writers, starting . each with a poor reproduction of a portrait likeness, and the full text of one of their most well-known hymns. He has selected hymns which will be familiar to most readers even today (if only through singing them at football matches) and he puts them with a short biography of the writer and a brief survey of their social and religious context. Each chapter contains a section which he entitles A Spiritual Treasury which covers further examples of the wwriter's output. The hymns of the eighteenth and nineteenth century are heavily represented but the author chooses to end his survey there without so if much as a glance at works from the twentieth century. This contributes to the old fashioned feel of this book, which is reinforced by the author's almost sycophantic approach to the hymns and their writers, whom he defends against all criticism. Of Fanny Alexander (nee Humphreys) he writes: '[she] was early acquainted with extremes of wealth and poverty', and it comes as no surprise to find that the editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations chose to represent her considerable written output with lines that, no longer found in any hymnal, are nowadays a constant source of mirth as religion is scorned for numerous absurdities. Yet in their period setting

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
GOD made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate

-- the lines Fanny penned as part of a simple children's gloss on creation in the creed -- by no means deserve such ridicule and obloquy ...The hymn's third verse may not resonate with contemporary concepts of society or the fashionable "relevance" required nowadays. Some hold it to mirror Victorian notions of social control, and link the libelled [my italics] stanza to a mid-century clamour for political reform. But that does not make it either "wicked" or "dreadful". Quite the reverse, for as a period piece it must be set in context like all the hymns considered in this book. Together with most of her religious poetry, this is a moving "catechism-hymn" for "little children" and represents a brave attempt on the part of Fanny Alexander to analyse and explain creation and the human situation to the very young. ' It is difficult to reconcile this sort of statement with the assertion Newman Brooks makes in his Preface that '... this essay has tried to weigh and convey the spiritual worth of great hymns both in their own context and as an incomparable heritage of no mere phase or fashion but of timeless truth.'

The book presents an interesting enough trawl through evangelicalism as presented in hymnody, possibly reflecting the author's own approach to spirituality , but it is to be doubted whether it will command a large readership. The language in which much of it is couched cries out for careful editing. I can make little of such sentences as this: 'For the men, women and children who can no longer cope with doctrine care a great deal about hymns, however much most of them fail to realise that, in such carefully-contrived compositions, authors who lived in very different periods of history from the present, effectively condensed the peculiarities of their preaching in precisely the kind of prayer and praise deemed appropriate to the effective communication of their gospel message.'

The first chapter on Luther may appeal to readers of this Journal, and there are items of general interest such as the doctrinal conflict between Toplady and John Wesley, though Newman Brooks has nothing new to bring to such issues, but overall this is a discursive and long-winded presentation of a potentially fascinating subject.

Hilary Day

Valid XHTML 1.0!